Nutrition guru Nathan Pritikin met his death by suicide in the face of two different kinds of leukemia last February with arteries like those of a child and a heart like that of a young man, according to results of his autopsy being published today for the first time.
But while the extraordinary condition of the vessels supplying blood to the 69-year-old Pritikin's heart is being seized on by advocates of the dietary regimen Pritikin pioneered as proof that his eating habits can cause reversal of hardening of the arteries, the question is likely to remain unresolved and controversial for many more years.
Effects of Leukemia?
Controversy may also arise over whether the double-barrelled leukemia from which Pritikin suffered itself might have been at least partially responsible for the absence of fatty deposits in Pritikin's cardiovascular system. Some cancer specialists, however, say such an effect seems unlikely based on current evidence.
The pathologist who performed the autopsy conceded such questions may arise, though he said he personally does not believe either the cancer or the therapy influenced Pritikin's coronary health. And a cancer specialist who treated Pritikin for two years said he is convinced the nutritionist's cardiac health "has nothing to do" with the cancer or its treatment.
"Frankly, I think the man was onto something," concluded the cancer specialist, Dr. Ken Foon of Ann Arbor, Mich.
To the end, said Foon, Pritikin insisted to his doctors--the combination of two different strains of lymphoma, a type of leukemia, was unusual and perhaps unique, Foon said--that he knew what the autopsy would show and that the results would be his vindication.
The unusual step of publishing a summary of the autopsy in the New England Journal of Medicine was taken, said the three doctors who collaborated on it, to bring a halt to the word-of-mouth spread of unscientific reports of the Pritikin findings that began shortly after the nutritionist killed himself in an Albany, N.Y., hospital in late February.
He had checked into the facility under an assumed name suffering from extreme side effects of last-ditch therapy to control his leukemia, according to Foon, who was treating Pritikin until the time of his death.
Foon had met Pritikin and started to design a complex chemotherapy program for him while Foon was on staff of the federal government's National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md. Pritikin, however, experienced extremely uncomfortable side effects to virtually every treatment. Finally, Pritikin was so sick from the effects of his drugs and anemia that developed as a result of the leukemia that he decided there was no reason to continue living, Foon said.
After Pritikin took his own life by slicing through arteries in his arms with a razor blade, the case routinely was referred to the local coroner's office because it was an apparent suicide. The autopsy was conducted by Dr. Jeffrey D. Hubbard, a local pathologist, before he learned Pritikin's true identity, Hubbard said.
In a telephone interview, Hubbard said it was only by coincidence that he subjected Pritikin's heart to an especially thorough autopsy examination--because the actual immediate cause of death was beyond question. He said he did such a complete job because the details of the leukemia and the patient's determination in taking his life intrigued him, but also because a resident physician undergoing training in pathology was on hand and Hubbard chose that body to demonstrate techniques for complete dissection and evaluation of the heart. Pritikin's body was cremated a few days later.
The account of the autopsy results being published today was written jointly by Hubbard, Dr. Stephen Inkeles, an internal medicine specialist at Pritikin's Longevity Center in Santa Monica, and R. James Barnard, a cardiovascular disease researcher at the Pritikin program who also holds an appointment at UCLA.
What Hubbard found was a heart remarkably free of disease and coronary arteries that were completely open, without any hint of development of fatty plaques that plug up the vessels of heart disease victims and result in angina pain and often fatal heart attacks. While there were small traces of fatty tissue both in the heart muscle and in the coronary arteries, all four of the major arteries examined were totally free of any restriction--a condition virtually unheard of for a 69-year-old man living in a Western country.
The size and weight of Pritikin's heart were well within optimal ranges, the report noted, and the muscle tissue itself was thick, well developed and uncompromised, indicating the heart's pumping ability was essentially unrestricted.